Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Journal of the Plague Year: Irma and glimpses of Mexico

Irma in a characteristic pose

Irma was our high energy, outgoing cleaner. Every day but Sunday she came in to mop floors, make beds, wash dishes, sweep the walkways, water plants, and create order. She did our laundry for a small fee in an outdoor laundry area she had set up.

 As it became clear we should start eating in, I was surprised that we could find no fresh seafood--pescado--in the many little grocery markets nearby, so I turned to Irma. She had very little English and we almost no Spanish, so I said "pescado" and pantomimed cooking it over the stove. She jumped into action. The next thing we new, we were in the carro (car) zooming--though slowed by the many speed bumps-- to Port Angelo.

Irma and Roger. 

It was one of those lovely moments in which Irma's friend was delighted to sell us shrimp and swordfish at what were no doubt inflated prices to her while we were delighted at the bargain we were getting. We learned from Irma that she had a 16-year-old daughter in high school and had rid herself of her husband 12 years before.

When we realized we would have to go home early, we told Irma. She was distressed--she told us, jokingly, we would have to stay forty more days, as that was how long the house would be empty. She would be out of work and money. I gave her a small amount of money, $25.00, but she seemingly appreciated the gesture and brought over dinner--and her daughter--two days before we were to leave. She also told the home's owner what wonderful people we were and should be had back.

Our part of Mexico was not a place of refrigeration. The produce was particularly wonderful to taste but tended not to be as large and physically beautiful as what we get at home and often sat out for hours in the heat. People seemed to drink ultra-pasterized milk that did not need refrigeration: we had to search to find what, to us, was "regular" milk. Butter, when it could be found, was sold in single sticks. Much of the food we saw beyond produce was staples: beans, rice, canned goods. We discovered bacon once in a refrigerated compartment but where to find fresh "carne" remained a mystery, though not much of a problem as I don't eat meat.

I quickly discovered I needed plastic to cover the food we were keeping in out refrigerator but that the plastic bags that we get far too many of in the U.S. were close to non-existent where we were. This is a wonderful way to live--and a reminder to me to try to take my cloth Aldi bags to more stores in the US--but I found myself hoarding like gold every bit of plastic I could find. This is all good, good, good, to have resources scarce enough that we treasure them rather than choke on them.  I also appreciated the metal straws in restaurants, meant to save the local turtles.

Outside area along a highway.

We appreciated a restaurant every few feet in the towns close to us. The food was fresh and home cooked, bread products taken out of adobe ovens. We enjoyed dining outside.

Outdoor dining 

One day we went to Pochutla, the closest city, to use the money machine. It was early evening, The streets were lined with street vendors and and a startling number of people of all ages filled the streets and sidewalks.

The little (and faint) blue dot at the bottom on the Pacific side shows Pochutla and helps locate how far down the coast we were. 

It is hard, if not impossible, to capture the bustle and energy on the Pochutla evening streets--people of all ages, dogs, cars, pedestrians, the street vendors, the brightly lit stores behind them. I have never seen--except perhaps during a festival which has a completely different, less everyday feeling--this kind of energy on a U.S. street. The city felt alive. It is the kind of streetscape that I picture in New York's lower East Side in 1910. It is a streetscape likely to haunt my dreams. I hope the weather  can mitigate what is a tight-packed canister for plague transmission.

Pochulta near the money machine--not where the street vendor are and not packed, but still busy with people on the street.

We climbed up stone steps one day in San Agustinillo and saw how average people live.  To some it might simply look like poverty, but to me simply a different kind of life--and not to be romanticized--but is it worse than ours? I remember the interest I took years ago in the stories told by people like me who went and lived in Third World countries. Often what unfolded was a narrative of middle class people first appalled at poverty, then developing a gradual awareness that while these countries were undoubtedly shockingly poor, there existed a deeply communal or robust way of life--a fabric-- that we no longer have. I don't know how Mexico stacks up worldwide for poverty, but I remember in particular a story from an African nation. The "west" came and gave these poor people running water in their homes, appalled that they didn't have this--sparing the women the long walk to the water hole each day and the long walk back carrying a heavy clay pot of water. Having the running water turned out to be labor saving but also destroyed the social life the women experienced every day meeting to gather water.

I often shrivel when people speak scornfully or contemptuously of all that poorer people don't have, apply stereotypes, judge by outward appearances: how horrible they say  it is to live with less than we have, the assumption always reigning that we with more material goods are superior. And I wonder how much I would be able to give up of what I have grown accustomed to. I weigh how much liberation comes in having less, how much deprivation, where is the "sweet spot." But I cannot feel superior. I cannot entirely measure happiness--or worth-- in material goods.

We loved what we saw of Mexican life, the beauty of Mexico. I was glad of speed bumps in the road to slow us down and protect the people without cars, the vibrant streets, the lack of plastic, and the real food, real places, the dogs and cats everywhere. I probably make up most of what I say--construct a narrative to suit myself-- but as Virginia Woolf would point out, that is what we all do.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Mexico

 San Agustinillo Mexico in Oaxaca is beautiful in March with clear skies and temperatures in the upper 80s, but our holiday was quieted and finally cut short by the pandemic. We loved the area in which we stayed. While geared to tourism, it had no big hotels and a visible Mexican culture coexisting with the visitors.

A view from our porch. Me above--I don't know where exactly but enjoying the mellowness of Mexico. 

We arrived on March 7th to our "earth house," which was bigger than we expected, with many views of the ocean. We could hear the waves crashing on the shore. For anyone who ever fantasized about windows without glass, our wooden-shuttered windows opened to the outdoors without a barrier.

Our soaring straw ceiling above a loft bedroom. The Huatulco airport nearby has the same architecture

People drink bottled waters and ours was kept in this lovely urn.

Our kitchen, with view of the ocean.

Remarkably, even with lights on, insects did not swarm the house at night--or even seem to enter--though we would sometimes see the shadows of small geckos inside  the paper shades of the hanging lamps overhead in our straw ceilinged bedroom. Our birds were chacalacas, large and noisy. At least one seemed to nest in the straw roof at the top of the house.

The chacalacas owned the place and made sure we knew it.

We enjoyed sitting in the window seat upstairs in our loft--or tree house-like--bedroom and watching  the waves and the red sun setting over the ocean.

Stunning sunsets from upstairs windows

The walk to the beach was down many flights of stone steps with some rocky dirt paths in between. To the right of the rocks, we could stroll up the beach and have breakfast at one of the many restaurants with large decks open to the ocean. The food was good, fresh, cheap. The first day we drank fresh orange juice and coffee and ate omelets.

I can't find a photo of our stone steps to the beach but here is Roger walking up stone steps in San Agustinillo

Covid was in the background from the start. The airports were crowded (different from news reports of emptiness) and we saw many workers spraying and cleaning surfaces. On the plane, the young people behind us talked loudly and nervously about not worrying about CoV--they were healthy, so they decided they might as well get it and get it over with. They were not thinking of who they might spread it to who might not be robust.

I attended a long "slow yoga" class at the Hridaya yoga compound. It was a meditative class, where we held the poses for long times. I found it calming. But at this point, with the news  growing more dire in Europe and the US, I was not unhappy that the yoga center was closing for a 17-day retreat as I was wondering about the safety of doing yoga in close quarters.  I wondered if the very low number of cases of CoV in Mexico would begin to suddenly spike.

One morning we went to the beach and watched as men in a motorboat returned from fishing. They unloaded shark after shark and cleaned them quickly and effortlessly with large, sharp knives, making it look simple. Pelicans and seagulls circled overhead, around and around, waiting, until finally, they were rewarded by being thrown some shark.

We stood with a couple from California and watched the shark operation. The simple insides of the sharks were a lovely shade of lavender. By the time the men were done and the birds had feasted on their last food, it was if none of it had ever happened. The men bagged up the intestines for bait and carted off the cleaned shark in big wooden wheelbarrows. There was no waste. Except for the motor on the boat, it could have been a scene from a fishing village in Italy in the Roman era.  Of this enterprise we have no photos as we had left out cellphone behind from the beach.

An elementary school stood by the beach, some steps down and set back from the main road. It was a two room, open air school. What is it like to go to school on the beach? We watched one day as the children in navy blue and white uniforms poured out to the concrete area to play. Two boys took off their black belts and held them high and beat the air. Girls smiled but pressed nervously back against the wall of the school, squeezing thin. Teachers watched, unconcerned, though certainly, one presumes, ready to intervene. The boys beat at each other with the belts, using them like swords. Patriarchy begins early and is still, today, tied to clothing. The girls, in their blue jumpers, had no items of dominance. We are not so far from the Roman era.

When we went to the remote beach near our house, we watched the big pelicans dive bomb straight down into the water to catch prey. They congregated on the rock formations that came up from the water, where we found warm crevices to sit in pools of water, protected (somewhat) from the high waves.

It was a chore climbing all the stone staircases in the heat back to our house.

View down to the beach. We were up a steep hill. 

One day we took the "shortcut" to the other side of the rocks and settled near a small cave in the shade on a beach with no people but us. Roger, despite using copious amounts of sunblock, got a bad burn on his chest. But it was lovely there. I finished a book on character and began Peyton Place, a novel I was supposed to have read in a reading group years ago--it bothered me as the rare book club book I hadn't read.

Our cave on the unpeopled beach

The main beach clearing of people as tourists headed home

But amid this all, and continuing to go out, if sparingly--for a margarita, to meet for lunch with people living an hour up the coast, to have a coffee and pastry at the Frida Kahlo coffee shop or a brunch, worries about the coronavirus and the news from home hovered in the background.

Frida Kahlo coffeeshop. Very nice. 

 I lost my will to to take the fishing boat to see the whales and dolphins, to scuba dive, to find more yoga classes, to do more touring. Was it worth the risk? We lived more to ourselves. We ate dinners in.

Dining in

 We ventured out to shop at the little grocery store in Zipolote--and were glad for our lovely, open-air house. It was quite different from the year before when we had braved the crowds unconcernedly in Malta, Sicily, and Bath.

Casa du Pan (bakery) sign on top, down a narrow side street

the bakery

But there were similarities: last year we were in England as Theresa May was putting forth her Brexit proposals for a vote, three days in a row, and we overheard nervous conversations similar to those about the virus in restaurants as people worried Brexit really would happen .... always something.

By the 19th we had booked tickets to leave early--on the 21st. We left, as it happened on the 22nd due to a flight cancellation. The towns we knew, San Agustinillo, Zipolite, and Mazunte, were emptying of tourists. Water was put on the street in plastic barrels, with soap dispensers nearby, so people could wash hands frequently. Banners about Cov appeared.

In our last days, water tanks and liquid soap appeared on the streets

The last night I was nervous about whether our second flight would be cancelled and whether we would be stranded in Mexico, We we read reports of U.S. citizens stuck in Morocco, so I wondered  if a simple trip home would turn in a Balkan Trilogy type melodrama. We went out for a final margarita to the restaurant we had eaten our first tired night in meal. It was virtually empty, but I saw a young couple I took as American and bee-lined over to them to find out their story. They were German and Belgian and had also had a flight cancelled. They gave us information on where to buy hand sanitizer. And then, the next morning, we were on the way home.

We returned to rain and the rain and overcast gray skies have not stopped--but they will. In the meantime, ala Wordsworth, we happily remember scenes from the recent past.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Among the Ruins: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Catholic Church, by Paul L. Williams

The opening of The Vatican's Apostolic Archive, including papers from the World War II years--https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/what-vaticans-secret-archives-are-about-reveal/607261/--makes a blog on Williams' book timely. I am writing about this particular book because it remains so strongly fixed in my mind two and half years after I read it, while other books have passed as wispily away as dissolving clouds. I wish to be very clear, however, that I am not writing about this work because I have any personal vendetta against the Catholic Church. Instead, the book remains with me because the trajectory it traces about Catholic Church politics in the twentieth century is so shocking--and seems to me a warning to our political institutions.

Williams' thesis ties the decline of the institutional church to its having sold out its core values starting in the late nineteenth century.

He then locates several theological turning points in the twentieth century church: the Vatican was penniless in 1929 and $10 million in debt to Germany when Mussolini bought papal support for $90 million. Williams connects this to the startling silence of the Church about Mussolini's antisemitism, as well as to Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Williams also pinpoints a major change in ancient Church theology in its adoption of usury in 1935, the year the Church's newly formed bank became part of Mussolini's banking consortium and started a series of lucrative money lending endeavors. This was a problem not only because the bank tightened ties between the Vatican and a fascist regime, but because it sent a symbolic message that still resonates today. Collecting interest is a "rent"--a form of unearned income (which the Church once condemned as immoral)--  that has led to increased concentrations of wealth in the hands of the very wealthy and to increased suffering for the poor. That the church supports usury helps normalizes cripplingly high interest rates, such as those that burden some poorer nations and many poor individuals. In contrast--and ironically--one of the first steps of the new Bolshevik regime after the Russian Revolution was to abolish usury and give out interest free loans, wanting to free people from the drag of rents.

Beyond the church's complicity with Mussolini, Williams documents the "rat line" the Vatican established that the Nazis used after the war to escape to South America, its hand in glove work with the CIA in the Cold War era, the destructive results of Vatican II on the Church, and the pedophile scandal.

None of what Williams says is new information: his sources are reputable books by scholars, reputable newspapers, already published interviews and available statistics. What makes the book powerful is the way Williams' relentlessly lays out the path of corruption over the course of a century. As a former religion reporter, I have been used to reading about the various problems with the Catholic Church (and we can apply this as well to the Protestants churches and many other faiths) in isolation: complicity with fascism as separate, for example, from the pedophile scandal. It is stunning to read about all of these as a continuum. I also often found myself  certain Williams must be  exaggerating or using sources with the credibility of a National Enquirer, but every one I looked at appeared to be solid. Even if only a fraction of what he writes is true, however, the magnitude of the corruption is breath-taking.

Williams writes that the decline of the Roman Catholic Church over the course of the twentieth century was made real to him when his childhood church, St. John the Baptist Church in Scranton, Pa. was closed in 1995. Its grounds are now occupied by United Penn Bank, while "the convent house, the rectory, the church hall, and the school have been demolished to create a parking lot." His investigation is an effort to put together how this happened.

As we might wonder how our own cherished places have now sometimes turned into parking lots and fast food restaurants surrounded by decayed buildings, it is instructive to read what happens when a powerful institution repeatedly trades its ethical core for money. In the United States, as Williams outlines in a stunning series of statistics that show the wholesale fleeing of clergy from the church and declines in parishes and lay attendance (only saved from a rout by Latino immigration), we can trace an institution that ate its seed corn when it sold out its values. (We can argue this has been happening for a millennia and would not be wrong, but that it is not the book's focus.)

This sell-out seems to me not dissimilar from what the major political parties have been doing in this country, yet ethical cores are vitally important to institutions. The Roman Catholic Church arguably would have done much better to have defaulted on its loan to the Germans in 1929 and embraced poverty rather than become Mussolini's puppet. The Church might have suffered in in the short term (I will mention, however, that embracing suffering for moral reasons is a Christian core concept.) I will also note that the very point of ethics is that they have meaning only if they are not abandoned the moment they become difficult to adhere to. Ethics, as George Eliot might have said, are more important that an individual's or an institution's ease or convenience.

If we run an imagined alternative history, we could envision that after a period of suffering, bankruptcy, and persecution in the 1930s, the Church might have become a creditable moral voice free to speak out, fighting fascism and the holocaust. What has the alternative done but discredit the institution as corrupt, overly wealthy, and out-of-touch? Fortunately the voices of the many dedicated Catholics on the ground fighting for liberation and justice work to keep the core message--and the Church itself-- alive.